Ash Wednesday

I waited in the church parking lot for Barbara and Bill to return for Barbara’s purse, which she had left in the sanctuary after the service. Well, not left it really–she thought she had lost it, and, after about 10 minutes of turning over pew cushions to find it, she and Bill fled the Ash Wednesday worship–only just beginning–to find it.

I had noticed her searching, had heard the first rumbling of trouble before the quake, when she asked (as if to anyone within earshot), “Where’s my purse?” She was only in the second row. I was in the first, along with the three high school students and one Youth Intern who were leading worship. Several searching turns of the head did not produce the purse, and by the Call To Worship Barbara was in a panic. She stooped to scan the undersides of pews. She darted to the side aisle to pace the length of the sanctuary, back to front, broadcasting a desperate search. And then she was gone, so the contemplative peace of youth reading prayers and smudging ashes could resume as I’d planned it.

The purse showed itself from the opposing front pew shortly after the sanctuary had emptied. I put away the microphones, cleaned up the little dishes that had held our ashes, turned out the lights, and then scooped up the purse and proceeded to the office, where I called Barbara at home. As soon as I announced myself into the phone, she announced, “You have my purse! I’ll be there in 20 minutes!” She hung up instantly.

I drove a worshiper home who lived less than a mile down the street and then returned to the church to wait for Barbara and Bill. The night was warm and clear and quiet, and thoughts or inconvenience or irritation troubled me not at all. I was grateful for an unscripted interlude to stare dumbly at passing cars and sing “Come And Fill Our Hearts” to the moon. I was sad when it ended, when searching headlights found me and made straight for me.

I heard the tale then of the confusion surrounding the purse’s disappearance and of how Barabara and Bill had retraced the evening’s steps, from Target to Burger King, and had eventually used Bill’s phone to call and disable Barbara’s cell phone. They were moments from calling the bank about her credit cards when they got my call. Barbara was apologetic. She regretted the disruption to the service. I assured her it was no disruption (which was true; hadn’t the service continued anyway? Can worship be so easily derailed?). Then I excused myself, wished them a good night, and climbed back into my car as Barbara exhorted me to go home and play with my daughter.

“I will,” I said. Then, through the closed passenger side window, I added, “She wants me to bring her home some ashes.” There was an uncovered dish of them right there in the cup holder.

“Ahes!” Barbara exclaimed, testifying to just how far away from the night’s occasion she had chased her purse. “We didn’t get any of those.”

It was the most reflexive thing I have ever done to grab the dish in my right hand, open the driver side door with my left, and round the trunk to stand at Barbara’s window. She hadn’t noticed my approach and only saw my when she turned around to begin backing out of her parking space. When she did, she quietly rolled down the window and lowered her head in observation. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Then Bill leaned over from the passenger seat and received his ashes and his incantation.

“Have a good night,” I said and once again returned to my car.

“You too,” Barbara answered. And then, “We love you.”

“I love you too” I shouted as they backed away, staring forward across the church lawn through a streaky windshield. I paused one more moment to listen, then drove home in silence.

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